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Red Flags About Red Flag Laws

Red Flags About Red Flag Laws

At first, they sound rather sensible. Red flag laws, that is. 

Proponents insist that these measures will prevent mass shootings by identifying deranged gunmen and seizing their firearms before they strike.

If there’s one thing left/right/pro-SecondAmendment/anti-SecondAmendment Americans can agree upon it’s that we all want to keep weapons out of the hands of homicidal maniacs.

Yet predicting who will become a killer is little more than a guessing game. There’s no guarantee these laws will work. But they are guaranteed to deprive some people of their constitutional rights.

After the horrific shootings in the El Paso Walmart earlier this month, President Donald Trump expressed support for a federal red flag law. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia already have their own versions.

"We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that, if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process," said the president. "That is why I have called for 'red flag' laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders."

Due process. Key words.

But off-the-cuff comments from President Trump on Tuesday - one week later - illustrate everything that can go wrong with these laws.

Shortly after the video clip of Chris Cuomo’s unhinged outburst on Shelter Island went viral, the president weighed in, via Twitter. Of course.


No. No. No, Mr. President. That’s not how this is supposed to work.

Chris Cuomo isn’t nuts. Not in the clinical sense, anyway. He’s a pugnacious loudmouth.

And this is exactly what many of us fear about these laws: That they’ll strip law-abiding folks of their Second Amendment rights simply because they tend to get angry. Yell at their kids. Their wives. Their dogs. Or flip the bird at other drivers. 

The fact that Cuomo got in the face of a stranger who insulted him in front of his family does not mean that he’s ready to shoot up a school or a Walmart.

Not all red flag laws are created equal, of course. Some states allow anyone to petition the court to strip someone of their gun rights. That can include angry ex-spouses, curmudgeonly neighbors or practically anyone else with a grudge. Not good. Other states require law enforcement to bring the petition to a judge after a thorough investigation of the initial complaint. That’s preferable, but still subject to arbitrary standards. There is some evidence that judges in red flag states tend to err on the side of removing rights.

I’m not an expert on red flag laws, but it is true that many mass shooters signal their intent before a catastrophic event.

“Almost all mass shooters display warning signs before committing acts of violence,” reports The Washington Examiner. “According to a 2018 FBI report, 40 percent of shooters receive a psychiatric diagnosis before their crime, and 70 percent display ‘mental health stressors’ or ‘mental health concerning behaviors’ before the attack. “

If America is going to go down the uncertain road of trying to ID would-be mass murderers, these statutes need to be drawn narrowly and carefully. Not hastily, in the emotional aftermath of a tragedy. 

Stripping constitutional rights from American citizens who have not committed a crime is as serious as it gets.

Worse, there’s the legitimate fear that red flag laws will discourage some folks from seeking mental health care because doing so could cause them to lose their firearms. 

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that in 2016 an estimated 16.2 million Americans had at least one major episode of depression. Those episodes did not result in mass shootings. Yet many Second Amendment supporters worry that a diagnosis of depression or even a prescription for psychotropic drugs could trigger a red flag.

Those concerns are justifiable, especially when the president himself suggests that a celebrity with a foul mouth and a nasty temper should not be allowed to own a gun.

Red flag image courtesy of Alfredo Hernandez

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